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Obama’s Science Initiative, Marshmallows at the Whitehouse
An interesting scene at the White House recently had President Obama helping a young middle school student shoot marshmallows out of an air-powered cannon. It was probably one of the more important moments of the day as it highlighted the importance of science education not only to the press but also to the parents, teachers and most of all the students present.
In his comments the President stated that his new 2013 budget was going to give math and science the respect and attention they deserve. I think science always had respect. Generally we do not get attention because we are such specialized fields. In the early days of writing standards parents and legislators would get knee deep into the contentious discussions about how to teach language arts and math. After all most felt comfortable with simple math, reading and writing. Balancing equations or thinking about the systems in earth science was a whole new animal.
Science was able to fly under the radar. That was great for avoiding the often bitter battles that erupted over other subjects and it left science teachers alone to move forward without a great deal of interference. The problem with that was in attracting new faces and voices to the field. We simply began to run out of teachers for science and math. That problem is on the White House radar because it greatly impacts the economic health of the United States.
That led to the astounding sum of 80 million dollars that will fund a new Department of Education competition to support math and science teacher preparation programs. I greatly appreciate the funding and attention but we need more teacher voice in this discussion.
One of my favorite old sayings is, “if you keep doing what you’re doing, you are going to keep getting what you are getting.” I want something different from the status quo. I want science teachers selected for their passion for the subject, I want a clear path to help give ongoing content classes when an administration decides to have us teach outside our content major. I want teachers who can connect the science disciplines and help kids make sense of the systems that intersect. I want programs that follow important paths rather than a series of hoops and speed bumps.
Obama explained. “We’re a nation of tinkerers and dreamers and believers in a better tomorrow.” I agree with all of that but our colleges do not generally foster that spirit in their programs of study. We are great in education at adding on but not so skilled at letting go of plans and paths that are no longer viable. You can look at how difficult it was for the auto industry to change. Education is a bit like that.
This may be different. Several powerful philanthropic organizations have put 22 million into the effort to train science and math teachers. The goal for this funding and the new money proposed by the White House is to train 100,000 new specialized teachers who will help produce one million new graduates in science, technology, engineering and math. I am hopeful.
There are other organizations out there doing work that will support and impact this effort. The Center for Teaching Quality in North Carolina is connecting teachers and helping elevate their voice in policy discussions. I think that what I needed most in my early years of teaching science was a group of colleagues who shared the same subject and solved problems collectively. Connecting teachers and thinning the classroom walls is important work.
The schedule is a problem. Fitting a meaningful science lab into a period of time designed for a writing exercise (and a short one at that) is crazy. Yet, we do it in every state. Science has some specific and unique needs. Training more people will help a great deal. But it only solves the short-term problem.
To improve science teaching we need to look at how we learn science. There is some great research on this. We need to give kids a chance to look at the understandings they have about the world and reexamine them in light of new evidence. Science teachers design and guide students through experiences that give them that evidence which allows the kids to discard misconceptions and construct a more powerful set of scientific understandings.
There is a second benefit to doing this. When we give kids these kinds of experiences where they come to understand something richer and deeper they feel empowered in that subject. If empowered they may just decide to pursue a career in that field.
Standing in the White House with a device he designed to shoot marshmallows, Joey Hudy of Phoenix was in the zone. Someone important was praising him for his work. Someone was paying attention to the tinkering that is often left out of classes with a focus on standardized testing. If we could do that for every dreamer and every science student with a tiny flicker of passion for the subject we would be fine. The simple fact that this happened to Joey and a group of other students gives me hope.
Obama's Science Initiative [DOWNLOAD]